Yakuza reads

I recently read two books about organized crime in Japan, which of course means books about the yakuza. I will summarize my thoughts briefly below.

Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld, Expanded Edition

Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld, Expanded Edition
David E. Kaplan, Alec Dubro
(University of California Press, 2003)

Originally published in 1986, this “expanded edition” was published a few years ago, and it’s hard to imagine there’s a more comprehensive book in English on the subject of Japan organized crime. It’s also hard to imagine, given the intimidation and threats the yakuza bring to bear related to anything negative published about them in Japan, that such a comprehensive book exists in Japanese.

Indeed, one of the main themes running through the book, eye-opening and depressing at the same time, is how entrenched organized crime is within Japan’s social and political fabric. It’s not just the tattooed, pinkie-less punch-permed toughs that one usually associates with the syndicates, but the suited racketeers shutting down stockholder’s meetings (sokaiya), or the politicians relying on yakuza money (or muscle) to get elected, or the “respectable businessmen” laundering yen, that make up today’s yakuza. You begin to wonder if there’s anyone not “associated” in some way with them.

Kaplan and Dubro do a great job tracing the yakuza from their beginnings as master-less samurai up to their present-day manifestation. The book is very detailed (almost dizzyingly so) about all the various “rackets” the crime groups are in, their attempts to expand overseas, and their relationships with other crime syndicates like the Mafia or The Triads. But where the book really shined for me was in unravelling all the ties amongst convicted Class-A war criminals like Yoshio Kodama and Ryoichi Sasakawa, their cooperation with US intelligence during the American occupation (to fight Communism), and how their tainted money helped not only create the Liberal Democratic Party but also the modern yakuza. Reading all this, you soon begin to realize why there probably will never be a Rudy Giuliani style take-down of the yakuza. There are just too many people in important positions profiting from their associations with crime figures.



Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan

Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan
Robert Whiting
(Vintage, 2000)

This book is ostensibly the life story of one Nick Zapetti, who lived in Japan for almost 50 years, and made his fortune with a series of Italian restaurants named Nicola’s. I’d never heard of the guy before (he passed away in 1992), but author Robert Whiting sure knew he was sitting on a gold mine of a story: an Italian-American from New York with relatives in the Mafia, involved in all sorts of shady and illegal activities in Occupation Japan, owner of a restaurant that was the place to be for celebrities and Japanese yakuza, more than passing acquaintances with the hugely popular (and secretly Korean) pro wrestler Rikidozan and his Korean patron and gangland boss Hisayuki Machii, several times jailed, four times married, many times sued, and one time naturalized Japanese citizen, and at one time the richest foreigner in Japan. Whiting must have been licking his chops as he bided his time before publishing his book, needing to try to confirm or corroborate all the amazing stories Zapetti had told him before he passed away. (He might have also considered it prudent to let some of the other folks he wrote about, like Machii, pass away.)

But while a great story in and of itself, Whiting doesn’t just give us Zapetti’s biography but rather uses it as the glue to hold together a myriad of stories related to post-war Japan and Tokyo’s underworld, and Whiting does such a good job weaving back and forth from Zapetti’s life to the larger picture that at first, I hadn’t even realized Zapetti was the main character (to be honest, I only realized the book’s subtitle — “The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan” — about half-way through the book). It’s the popular, cultural history to Kaplan/Dubro’s drier, almost academic look.

One thing I also appreciated about the book was the very detailed notes section at the back. Ostensibly to note the source(s) of what Whiting was writing about, in reality the notes section is so full of supplemental information that it becomes in effect an extra chapter. It also goes a long way toward showing the depth and breadth of the research Whiting put into writing the book.



I’m really glad that I read these books back to back, and in the order I did (Kaplan/Dubro’s Yakuza first). While one certainly doesn’t need a detailed history of the yakuza to appreciate Whiting’s more popular social history, it does help put a lot of the important figures like Kodama and Machii into context, and makes Whiting’s book a nicer, breezier read. The books really complement each other, and it was really serendipitous that I found the Whiting book on sale as I was reading the Kaplan/Dubro one. In a way, I needed something to breathe a bit more life into the more academic account, and Whiting’s book was just the ticket.

One Reply to “Yakuza reads”

  1. I read the first book you mentioned and found it to be a very good read despite the criticism some rather well-read people have given it. I also am familiar with the second book you mentioned but have not been able to get my hands on it yet. I hope to do so soon, however.

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